a fascinating article that was forwarded to me by my friend Marc Ryan, on the week that entertainer Harry Belafonte spent guest hosting the Tonight Show back in 1968. I’ve alluded to this before, mostly in terms of how we no longer see guest hosts on talk shows, and on the sensational lineup of guests* Belafonte presented.
*Somewhat unusually, Belafonte was given free rein to choose his own guests, which he did with a discerning eye toward the agenda he wanted to pursue.
As you know, we try to present a politics-free website for the most part, and some of you may be concerned about reading an article that originally appeared in The Nation. Fear not; although there’s certainly an ideological thrust to the piece, you can skip over any contemporary linkage if you so choose, and still appreciate the content. By all means, read the whole thing. Go ahead; I’ll wait while you do.
Just what does it tell us? For one thing, it’s a remarkable snapshot of the nation’s atmosphere back in 1968, and if the shows for the entire week existed (sadly, all we have are Belafonte’s interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), they would present a glorious time capsule of those turbulent times, to borrow a cliché. I’ve long said that television cannot be surpassed in its ability to provide us with this kind of contemporary contextual analysis; looking back, we see this era as clearly as if we were looking at pictures from Life or Look magazines. Some of the issues discussed might seem old hat to us today, while others will strike us as inconceivable – but there they are. Belafonte said the driving force behind this week of shows was to present America with a viewpoint it had not previously seen, and that goes for us as much as it does for the viewers who saw the shows at the time.
Did Belafonte succeed in introducing viewers to his different America? It’s true that his week of shows wasn’t the kind of thing that viewers were accustomed to seeing on a regular basis, although Merv Griffin and David Susskind, for example, was known for making executives nervous by veering into controversial subject matter.* Perhaps this wasn’t the first time such viewpoints had been presented on TV, but it was likely the most sustained presentation, viewed by a wider audience that probably was less accustomed to hearing about such issues.
*Not to mention Les Crane, who I think was a little more sensationalistic – like Donahue, perhaps.
It also reinforces my belief that the loss of the talk show guest host is unfortunate, to say the least. It deprives us not only of the opportunity to see someone else sitting behind the desk – and, I have to admit, Harry Belafonte would not have been the first person I would have thought of when it came to hosting the Tonight Show, but he did a great job – it also prevents us from seeing someone who truly does take the show in a different direction. It doesn’t have to be political; with similar freedom to shape the guest list, someone like Fred Astaire would probably have given us a far different look at the entertainment world than, say, Jerry Lewis. When the country singer Roger Miller subbed on Merv Griffin’s show back in the late ‘60s, his guests – other country stars – might not have gotten the visibility they would have if the host had been Joan Rivers, who might have chosen to highlight female comedians. See what I mean? Singers, dancers, comics, actors, athletes, politicians – a talk show shaped around a guest host can present a real variety of experiences to viewers, rather than out-of-date reruns of the same-old same-old. Besides which, hosts might be a little more insecure about the thought of a substitute doing better than them – think Larry Sanders, for instance.
Finally, it hearkens back to a day when talk shows - or "conversation shows," more accurately, could actually present conversations of substance. There isn’t much talking nowadays, guests don’t stick around to engage in banter, and an hour isn’t much time to get a good conversation in anyway. Let’s face it; today’s shows are mostly for actors and singers to talk about their latest movies or albums, and for comedians to tell a few jokes. Everything’s been pre-screened, and the host isn’t much more than a glorified press agent setting the guests up for whatever it is they want to plug. Such has always been the case, to a point, but Carson and Paar and Cavett knew how to interview someone, rather than simply feed them lines. Perhaps more important, they know how to listen.
I doubt there’s room for this kind of talk show on television anymore, and that’s too bad. It’s an example of the power television has to not only stimulate but also enlighten the public while at the same time keeping them entertained, or at least interested. Of course, in today’s short-attention-span culture, any conversation that doesn’t consist entirely of emoticons and abbreviations probably takes too long to follow, anyway.